In late November, Ren Jianyu, once a budding civil servant in China’s southwest, received his results for China’s National Judicial Examination: a sterling score well above what he needed to pass China’s bar. The triumph was bittersweet: for 15 months, Ren, like tens of thousands of others, had been forced to undergo “re-education through labor,” as time spent in China’s gulags is known.
Ren’s offense was to have reposted on his microblog comments critical of China’s government and its leaders. He also purchased online a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” For these transgressions, the now 28-year-old was never given the courtesy of a proper trial. He spent his days assembling cardboard for boxes and lived 11 people to a room in a camp filled with more than 1,000 inmates. But after a local justice board deemed his case improperly handled, Ren was released early in 2012 and later compensated less than $15,000 for his suffering. “After experiencing so many things all these years,” he says, “I am not afraid anymore.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — this injustice, Ren decided that he needed to familiarize himself with China’s legal system. After he was released, families of other legal victims came to him, asking for counsel. “At the time, I didn’t understand the law,” says Ren. “When I read the piles of materials they showed to me, I didn’t know which parts were useful, which were not.”
While the re-education-through-labor program has since been officially abolished, other legal black holes suck individuals into the netherworld of the Chinese justice system — like so-called “black jails” that operate apart from official prisons and incarceration in mental hospitals for certain individuals who dare to express dissent. Chinese law also allows citizens to be held under “residential surveillance in a designated place” for six months with no charge or visits from family or lawyers. (Despite the word residential, these detentions don’t tend to happen in individuals’ own homes, and international human-rights groups say that interrogation during these periods of lockup are often accompanied by torture.)
Ren’s career choice — he is now working in the legal department of a construction company in Chongqing, the southwestern Chinese metropolis — is a risky one. China’s lawyers, especially those who specialize in “rights defense” or weiquan, are under siege. While Beijing is currently pushing a rule-of-law campaign in state media, the situation on the ground can contradict such lofty aims. In recent months, hundreds have been detained by the state for trying to hold China accountable to its own constitution, which enshrines “ruling the nation in accordance with the law.” Constitutionalism, a term once bandied about in state media, has itself transformed into a dirty word. Government officials rail against the notion of “universal human values” as being a decadent and destructive Western import.
The campaign against China’s lawyers is part of an overall crackdown on civil rights defenders that has gained momentum in recent months. Journalists, academics and civil-society activists have all been targeted in what some call the most chilling crusade against freethinking in decades. Some dissenters have disappeared into black jails or residential surveillance. Others have been sentenced to years of jail for such nebulous crimes as “picking quarrels and inviting trouble” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”
On Nov. 27, writer and legal advocate Guo Feixiong (the pen name of Yang Maodong), was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on both of those charges. He had protested, along with two others who were given lesser prison terms, against press censorship back in 2013. Since then, all three have been detained. Amnesty International alleges that they were tortured, with two of the three barred from any time outside for more than 800 days. “These three activists were simply exercising their human rights and making legitimate calls for Chinese citizens to have a greater say in their country’s future,” says Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International. “The chilling answer from the authorities is, yet again, anyone perceived to be challenging the government will be severely punished.”
Hours before their sentencing, a 71-year-old investigative journalist, Gao Yu — who in April was sentenced to seven years in jail for “leaking state secrets abroad,” another commonly used charge against prisoners of conscience — was released on medical parole. Her freedom is still curtailed.
The plight of China’s lawyers, journalists and other professionals hasn’t dissuaded Ren. His determination to become a lawyer was strengthened by the fate of one of China’s top human-rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, who was once named lawyer of the year by a respected Chinese magazine. Pu had acted as Ren’s lawyer, and his intervention likely catalyzed Ren’s release from the labor camp. After his client was freed, Pu served as Ren’s witness at his wedding.
But in May 2014, Pu too was detained and later accused of “picking quarrels and provoking incidents” and “inciting racial hatred.” He remains locked up, with a court in Beijing this month ordering an extension to his pretrial detention. A lawyer once celebrated by the Chinese press was now considered too subversive by the state. In response to his lawyer’s detention, Ren stepped up his legal studies. “[I thought] if I could become I lawyer in the future, I could also defend people in court,” he says. “Whether my efforts are successful or not, at least I can solve problems within the scope of rule of law.”
But with little sign that this crackdown on dissent will ease, what can Ren and others accomplish? Even this newly minted lawyer is realistic. “Social progress depends on the rule of law,” Ren says. “I am kind of pessimistic about rule of law in China.”
— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing